Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tis the Season

My friend over at "A Room of One's Own" recently included some lines from Emily Dickinson, whose letters were often as lyrical as her poems.

"To live and die, and mount again in triumphant body, and next time, try the upper air-is no schoolboy’s theme! It is a jolly thought to think that we can be Eternal-when air and earth are full of lives that are gone-and done-and a conceited thing, this promised Resurrection! Congratulate me –John-Lad-and 'here’s a health to you'- that we have each a pair of lives, and need not chary be, of the one 'that now is'-"
Letter to John Graves, late April 1856, Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters
Long a fan of Emily Dickinson, I was really captivated by these lines. Obviously she was a person of faith, indeed, the child-like faith characteristic of an era when acceptance of grace and belief in the promise of resurrection seemed an easier path to take. Sure, Emily lived at a time when science - including Darwinian discourses on evolution - was perceived as an increasingly dangerous threat to Christian canon. But I'm guessing that tucked away in her Amherst home, somewhat isolated from the intellectual tumult of the academy, she found it easier to hold that vision of the "Eternal" close to her heart, unsullied by the assault of reason.

I had noted in posts from several months ago that the last few years have been a period of spiritual crisis for me, punctuated by severe questioning of my Christian heritage, and a curiosity with both Buddhism and Quakerism. I had experienced this drift to agnosticism during my 20s, an age when many people start to question the tenets - religious or otherwise - that have formed one's understanding since childhood. For years, and even more so of late, my family, all pretty regular churchgoers, have regarded me with the same suspicion early Christian bishops likely accorded the Albigensians or Arians, among numerous groups declared heretical. (Some of this suspicion about the nature of my belief is perhaps justified given my occasionally explicit non-trinitarian sympathies.)

A few months ago our local PBS station aired a three-part documentary, presented by English polymath Jonathan Miller, on the concept of "disbelief." (I discussed Miller's series in greater detail in my July 30th post.) Miller's "History of Disbelief" - he eschewed the term "atheism" - examined the philosophical underpinnings of disbelief in god(s) from the ancient world to the present. To a curmudgeonly skeptic like me, the content proved compelling and doubtless prompted me to revisit some of the issues first raised in my youth.

So now we approach the holidays and, beginning on Sunday, December 2nd, enter the Advent season, for those of you who follow liturgical calendars. And with Advent and Christmas one has to face again the theological questions of the immaculate conception, the virgin birth, the star, and the magi. Santa and the commercial blitz aside, isn't this what we're supposed to be celebrating on December 25th? I guess for those with "the faith of a child" it's easy to take that step of acceptance and just believe in these miracles. For me, tis the season of doubt. I want to believe without question. Yet that uncertainty is like that cough that won't go away, the wound that never heals.


Isabel said...

Actually Brian, we all struggle with our faith. Miss Em was no exception.
In that same letter to John Graves Dickinson mentioned:
“It is Sunday-now-John-and all have gone to church-the wagons have done passing, and I have come out in the new grass to listen to the anthems.”
She also wrote to her friend Abiah Root that “…I feel that I have not yet made my peace with God"

jblack designs said...

Hi Brian,

I found your post via Isabel's blog. Hope you don't mind my joining the party ...

Confession being good for the soul (or so I'm told), let me start by saying that I am not a person of faith. Or, to be more precise, I am not a person with faith in Christian theology ... or any other particular theology.

Yet I don't consider faith to be childlike (nor do you, I suspect). I think it must take a strength I cannot quite grasp to be a true person of faith--as opposed to, say, someone who believes because their parents did and their parents before that and so on until the beginning of the begats.

I've often wondered what it would be like to stare at the mysteries ... the improbabilities and contradictions ... scientific evidence ... seemingly logical arguments against, say, the Virgin birth ... and yet ... take that leap of faith.

Some days it reminds me of my wedding day (yes, I jest, but only partly so). Some days it seems so much folly.

I don't know which will side will win. I'm hoping for faith, I think.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!


Ardente Patience said...


It's almost Christmas and by a strange turn of events I end up in New Yok city, while looking for Emiy Dickinson, in your virtual place. I wish I had the french translation, I almost got it, but without, i am certain, the subtleties.

Sure having doubts is not in contradiction with preserving the childhood of the heart.

However, about the immaculate conception, i read, that one of the many interpretations of that phenomenon meant was an allegory. Kind of like Maître Eckhart's empty vase, Mary was spiritually a virgin

It would take a lifetime to explore remarkable similiarities in different religious texts and time to interpret the Bible's story. Let's hope it does not empeach from dreaming,imagining, from being suprised, astonished. That's what for me is innocence, the capacity to be present and the ability to be astonished.

Althouhg I understand the wound,it is it that makes one feel alive.

Joyeux Noël a few days in advance from Paris!